If any brand could do a #BrandRewind this week, I am sure it would be Ulta Beauty, after sending out a tone-deaf reference to the late designer, Kate Spade. In the email, the brand wrote “The NYC It Girl is back/ Come Hang with Kate Spade.” Unfortunately, the timing of the email also kicked off the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month and no one at Ulta thought to cross-reference the mention with the fact that Kate Spade died by suicide in 2018.
While the email was sent out to help market Kate Spade’s Sparkle fragrance, it clearly missed the mark and set off a PR nightmare for the brand. After an influx of complaints, Ulta’s PR team quickly retracted the newsletter and sent out an apology to subscribers. In a public statement, Ulta Beauty wrote, “This was a mistake, does not reflect our values and we are taking steps to ensure it does not happen again. And it was certainly not reflective of the deep respect we have for Kate Spade, her family and the kate spade new York brand and brand teams.” Ulta also shared that they would be putting protocols in place to ensure “something like this never happens again”.
Despite the apology and the sureties, it did little to stop consumer criticism and many felt it was incredulous that “not a single human at Ulta saw the mass email header” in order to correct it before being sent out. Some fans even accused the brand of knowing “what they were doing”.
While the debate on whether or not this was done intentionally to sell a product will continue, the true problem lies in the process. We all know how fast-paced marketing and communications can be, however, there must be protocols put in place to help catch major faux pas like this. Additionally, brands’ must be diligent in ensuring their staff is knowledgeable about a brand’s history and mission. Lastly, marketing and copywriting teams need someone on their team that is in tune with the cultural zeitgeist, that can act with compassion and connect the dots beyond clever copy. As one Twitter user wrote, “Anyone who’s even remotely adjacent to the beauty/fashion industry knows how Kate Spade passed. This is a horrific oversight. Do better Ulta.”
I echo that sentiment, in hopes that Ulta Beauty and other brands will take a moment to review their approval processes, the knowledge levels of their staff, and realize that every word matters. Also, implementation of a style guide is imperative and every content team needs to have one. It can make the difference between a PR nightmare or praise for your marketing efforts.